Kate Atkinson transported me right into the centre of that fascinating time between two World Wars: the glittering hour, the roaring twenties, the age of the flappers and the Bright Young Things. It feels like a period of madness, where a generation turns to decadence in their determination to move beyond mourning and death. Gwendolen Kelling travels to London for the first time since the funeral of the Unknown Warrior and she’s shocked by the change of mood. From the ‘enshrouded city’ that was ‘sternly armoured in the breastplate of grief’ to a place invigorated and ‘dressed for spring’. After a war spent nursing those horrifically injured in combat, Gwendolen is ready for anything. She’s down from York on a mission for a friend to find two teenage girls who’ve run away to London to be dancers. Freda and Florence are young and naive with, perhaps, an inflated sense of their own talent. Gwendolen’s search brings her into the orbit of Nellie Coker, matriarch of a family running a series of clubs that are as jewelled as their names – the Amethyst being their first. From time to time she hires dancing girls, hostesses available to dance with the patrons. Nellie is fresh out of prison and needs to stamp her authority on her family and those in the criminal fraternity who have been circling her businesses ever since she went inside. Gwendolen comes into the sphere of DI Frobisher too, someone else keen on observing the Cokers. So far he’s been relying on his officer Maddox to infiltrate the family, but he’s unsure on which side Maddox’s loyalties truly lie. Could the unlikely Miss Kelling be able to walk the tightrope between the police and the Queen of Clubs (and amateur psychic) Nellie Coker? Kate Atkinson explores this period of history through the dark underbelly of London and a gruesome series of murders, whilst also commenting on the act of writing itself.
Atkinson tells her tale through a series of interrelated characters who have no idea of the small world they’re inhabiting. Two of Nellie’s sons show very different ways of operating within this world and their family. Niven is the strong, silent and possibly sinister, elder son. Quietly loyal, he pops up here and there with his equally loyal dog. He has the enigmatic quality of Peaky Blinder’s Tommy Shelby – someone playing so many sides, it’s impossible to know the outcome he’s working for. There is a gentleman underneath, capable of the big romantic gesture, but makes no promises and likes to stay in control. Younger brother, Ramsay, is entirely opposite, out of control in every way he can be – drugs, alcohol and gambling. Unfortunately in the Coker’s world such vices leave you open to manipulation and there are vulture’s circling. Barman Quinn is one such character – obligingly close by when Ramsay is in need of a little pick-me-up or a means of floating away from Nellie and Niven’s disappointment or his own feelings of inadequacy. Ramsay has a dream of writing the great modernist novel, one that chronicles the age and captures the decadence of London’s nightlife. A gritty crime novel is his aim where his detective shines a light on the dope, the gangs, the parties, the fancy-dress, the gambling and even the Bright Young Things. He aims to weave a tapestry of all those threads and even has a title – The Age of Glitter. This clever device, where Ramsay is writing the very book in which he’s a character, is typical Atkinson brilliance.
I loved the character of Freda, the fearless teenager who has run away with her lumpen friend Florence. Blithely sure of her abilities to dance and to survive in the capital. She’s possibly underestimated her talent and the dangers they both face. She’s plucky and I was really willing her to succeed. We know something Freda doesn’t though, raising the tension for the reader. DI Frobisher knows that girls are going missing and many end up being fished out of the Thames in a terrible state. Will Freda be one of them? Gwendolen Kelling is intriguing and the epitome of a modern woman. After being at the tough end of military nursing her eyes have been opened. She has money from her mother’s will, more than she expected since both her brothers were killed in the war. As a woman of means she can now make independent choices and has no one (no man) to stop her travelling to London. She finds a suitable boarding house with a respectable landlady, but once she starts to make enquiries she finds herself treading a very fine line between the Cokers and the Police. She’s on a night undercover with Constable Cobb when a fight breaks out that leaves a gang member on the dance floor with copious amounts of blood pouring from a chest wound. Gwendolen is in her element and takes charge, stemming the blood flow and requesting everything she needs to treat the wound. It brings her to the attention of Nellie and her son, Niven. With Constable Cobb disappearing into the night, Niven treats Gwendolen to a suite at The Savoy and sends her a brand new dress from Liberty to replace the one covered in blood. Gwendolen is almost torn between these two opposing men she’s met – the dashing and mysterious Niven who gives off ‘wounded hero’ vibes or the principled and distinguished Frobisher? However, it’s Nellie who makes a proposal. Could Gwendolen manage the Crystal Club for her? With a beautifully appointed and very pink flat on offer above the club, this could be the best opportunity to spy for Frobisher and to find Freda?
My only gripe with the novel is that sometimes I wanted to spend more time with a character than I could. I wanted to follow where Florence went and I would have loved to spend more time with Niven. The structure isn’t always the easiest to follow, but it does work as a series of threads interwoven to create a tapestry. Each named chapter flits between points of view. Sometimes we go backwards in time such as Frobisher’s war and the meeting of his wife Lottie, who is deranged by grief and mute. We also look into Gwedolen’s painful history with her manipulative mother. We might flit between two different characters whose worlds overlap, but have no real knowledge of each other, then we get two consecutive accounts of the same event. We are slowly building up to knowing the whole picture, but everyone has their own colour to paint. I wondered whether the fractured structure was also a comment on the historical period and massive social change that has occurred since before WWI. It’s a period I’m particularly interested in and Atkinson has really nailed the aftermath of war, especially how it affected each gender differently. Women were pushing forward, pursuing their own dreams and their own means. War has necessitated their move beyond the domestic sphere and into the world of work. Once men returned from war they expected their jobs back and some companies had reserved jobs for returning soldiers, but obviously the great loss of life meant the jobs market still needed women. As it was a lot of men were without work and their expectations of having a wife at home were dashed. Attacks on women were more common, especially where there was unrest around a particular workplace.
I found the blatant misogyny that Freda encounters hard to read at times, especially when it’s clear how young she is. She’s preyed upon by a West End theatre manager, men in clubs and even an on duty police officer when she visits the station to report Florence as missing. The assumption that she’s young and unaccompanied, therefore must be a prostitute, really shocks her. The women in this book are often in danger, not just from the killer, but from any man they encounter. However, Niven and Frobisher could not be further apart in terms of occupation and background, but both treat Gwedolen like a gentleman, even if there’s a assumption underneath that she can’t look after herself. We see social mobility in the Coker’s rise to become wealthy, through the growth of their businesses and Nellie’s understanding that the younger generation want to party and forget. Their wealth lets them rub shoulders with a huge range of people from Maltese gangsters, to wealthy socialites the Bright Young Things. Ramsay attends ‘spielers’ with everyone from the aristocracy to hardened criminals. There’s even mention of a member of the Royal Family brushing shoulders with the Cokers. I found myself making comparisons with the television series Peaky Blinders, both families are caught up in the period’s state of flux, moving them beyond the confines of their class, but do the upper echelons of society truly accept them?
I loved that Atkinson used Ramsay’s writing journey in the beginning and ending of her novel. I found myself smiling at his ambition to write a crime novel that was also ‘a razor sharp dissection of the various strata of society in the wake of the destruction of war’. Shirley, his sister, complains he is trying to shoe-horn too much into the novel and asks why doesn’t he just stick with the crime? Ramsay works as Atkinson’s own doubts and the mental journey she takes while writing, but also echoes those outside criticisms we often hear about crime novels not being literary. I read criticism after Atkinson’s last Jackson Brodie novel that she puts way too much – poetry, philosophy – into a crime novel. As if these things are too high brow for crime readers. Putting aside a book’s need to be marketable, writing can surely be whatever the author wants it to be and shouldn’t have to conform rigidly to a set of genre rules? In the end Atkinson succeeds where Ramsay struggles and has produced a novel as eclectic as the age it represents and just as dazzling, glittering and fascinatingly dark.
Meet The Author
Kate Atkinson is an international bestselling novelist, as well as playwright and short story writer. She is the author of Life After Life; Transcription; Behind the Scenes at the Museum, a Whitbread Book of the Year winner; the story collection Not the End of the World; and five novels in the Jackson Brodie crime series, which was adapted into the BBC TV show Case Histories. The BBC adaptation of Life After Life is on the iPlayer now.